08/19/2009

SPLC Suit Leads to Significant Reforms in Mississippi Juvenile Detention Center

The children and teens detained at a Mississippi detention center will be protected from abuse and neglect under an agreement reached with county officials who oversee the facility.

The settlement, which still must be approved by a federal judge, ensures that youths at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi are not locked in their cells all day without reason, forced to sleep on the floor or housed in overcrowded conditions. The agreement also requires a suicide prevention policy and adequate physical and mental health care.

Harrison County and its independent contractors that operate the facility and provide medical and mental health care will work closely with SPLC attorneys and experts to ensure full compliance with the agreement and to protect the well-being of the county's detained children. Harrison County, the defendant in the case, did not admit to liability under the agreement.

The SPLC lawsuit, filed on April 20, alleged that youths were confined to unsanitary jail cells for 23 hours a day. Some cells were alleged to be overcrowded, requiring children to sleep on the floor on thin mattresses. Most of the youths held at the facility have not been found guilty of any crime and are awaiting court hearings.

"This agreement demonstrates Harrison County's strong commitment to protecting its detained youth," said Sheila A. Bedi, SPLC's regional juvenile justice attorney. "We look forward to further collaboration with the county and hope we can work together to develop alternatives to secure detention and identify other reforms that will help the county comply with this settlement."

The agreement, approved recently by the county's board of supervisors, restricts the use of cell confinement. It also provides guidelines for the use of restraints and force and enhances suicide prevention policies and practices. No more than two youths will share a two-person cell and no youth will be allowed to sleep on the floor. Officials also agreed to a specific staff-to-youth ratio to ensure appropriate supervision.

The SPLC will continue to monitor conditions at the detention center, which will submit quarterly reports to the Harrison County Board of Supervisors for the next three years outlining its compliance with the agreement.

"This agreement will make a tremendous difference for Harrison County's children and families," said Vanessa Carroll, a staff attorney for the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project and counsel for the children. "The county has committed to meeting the needs of detained youths and to reducing the unnecessary detention of those who are non-violent."

The SPLC filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of children and teens held at the facility and Mississippi Protection and Advocacy Systems, a nonprofit organization with a federal mandate to protect the rights of people with disabilities. The detention center has been operated by a private corporation, the Mississippi Security Police, for more than nine years at an annual cost of $1.6 million.